The Arts

UK Govt Imposes Export Ban on Painting of Indian Soldiers Who Fought for England in WW I

UK authorities claimed that Philip de Laszlo's painting should stay in the UK "to be examined, analysed, and appreciated on a variety of levels about the British experience, both positively and negatively."

London: Months after it was announced that a British Indian Army Memorial commemorating the sacrifice of millions of Indian soldiers who fought for the British during the two World Wars will be built in the Scottish city of Glasgow, the UK government has placed an export ban on a portrait by Anglo-Hungarian painter Philip de Laszlo of two Indian soldiers who fought in the World War I. 

As per a press release issued by the UK government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the unfinished portrait is estimated to be worth £650,000. It features cavalry officers Risaldar Jagat Singh and Risaldar Man Singh, who served as junior troop leaders in the British Indian Army’s Expeditionary Force at the Battle of the Somme in France and were reportedly killed in battle. 

The painting is highly unique in that it shows active Indian soldiers in the World War I.

Lord Stephen Parkinson, the UK Minister for Arts and Heritage, said in a statement, “This wonderful and sensitive portrait captures an important moment in our history as soldiers were drawn from across the globe to help fight in the trenches of the First World War.” 

“I hope this magnificent painting can remain in the UK to help tell the story of those brave soldiers and the contribution they and so many others made to Allied victory,” he added in the statement.

Before being deployed to fight in France, it is said that the soldiers waited for Laszlo in London for two months. The painting, which captures an important moment in British history as soldiers from across the British Empire came to fight in Europe, was kept in the artist’s studio until he died in 1937. It is expected that it will be purchased by a domestic buyer by the UK government.

Following the recommendations of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), the UK government decided to implement an export ban.

The committee’s recommendation was based on its “outstanding significance to the study of the Indian contribution to the war effect and the individuals involved.” 

“Philip de Laszlo was one of Britain’s most distinguished society portrait painters of the early 20th century. But this sensitive portrait, the more powerful because it is unfinished, offers an exceptionally rare glimpse not of maharajahs or generals but of two ordinary’ middle-ranking Sikh soldiers about to depart for the horrors of the Battle of the Somme,” said Peter Barber, a member of RCEWA. 

He added, “The enormous contribution made by them and millions of other Indians to Britain’s war efforts between 1914 and 1918 has until recently been largely overlooked and the life stories of de Laszlo’s sitters remain to be uncovered. Yet numerous descendants of Indian soldiers now live in Britain, rendering the portrait British’ at several, increasingly significant, levels.” 

The RCEW thinks the insightful and intensely personal painting should stay in the UK to be examined, analysed, and appreciated on a variety of levels about the British experience, both positively and negatively.

“De Laszlo could well have seen parallels between the position of these outsiders loyally serving their imperial master and his own as a humbly-born Hungarian Jew who had reinvented himself as a patriotic member of British high society,” Barber further added. 

“Like the Indians serving in the British forces, he too faced discrimination in face of growing public xenophobia. Within months of creating this portrait he was to be interned for over a year as a suspected foreign agent and to suffer a nervous breakdown after having been, sadistically, refused permission to paint.” 

The Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) said that the decision regarding the application for an export permit for the artwork will be postponed for three months ending on July 13, 2023.